Brad Sellers celebrated his 40th birthday in February in the Clarke County Jail in Quitman, having been there since June 2021 on a charge of aggravated assault on a Quitman police officer.
He’ll probably bee there for his 41st birthday as well.
A psychiatrist he saw in December determineed Sellers is incompetent to stand trial because of his schizophrenia but could be restored to competency with treatment. His mother, Dianne Sellers of Quitman, said that she was told her son faces a wait in jail of up to a year for a bed to open up at Mississippi State Hospital.
He’s among an unknown number of defendants awaiting a bed in the hospital’s forensic unit.
But MCIR’s recent story on Raffell Franklin of Laurel, who had been held five years in the Jasper County Jail without trial on a murder charge, sparked calls from civil rights groups and Franklin’s family to Disability Rights Mississippi, a private, nonprofit corporation with a federal mandate to protect and advocate for the rights of individuals with disabilities across the state. They want DRM to investigate the process the Mississippi Department of Mental Health uses to determine how long those held in county and city jails across the state who suffer from mental illness have to wait for beds.
Following MCIR’s story, Franklin, who is now represented by DRM, was transferred to Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield within 48 hours of DRM asking for information on his case from Mississippi State Hospital and their counsel, said Greta Martin, litigation director for DRM.
DRM, while investigating complaints of systemic understaffing at Mississippi’s state hospitals for the mentally ill, had already filed a suit against the Department of Mental Health to obtain 30 days of incident reports, Martin said.
The organization responded to the calls about Franklin’s case by also requesting information on how the department determines who goes to Mississippi State Hospital’s forensic unit from jails across the state -- a request the department denied. So DRM filed another suit against the department for refusing to answer its questions. The department has declined to comment about its decision.
“I requested policy and procedure for their services and what they’re doing to get information on people who are in this situation,” Martin said. ‘I think it will help us keep this situation from happening again. We think it’s going to be telling and show how they are bumbling this.”
Martin said DRM requests information regularly from the department to monitor care, services, grants, and facilities as well as information they need to investigate issues that need monitoring.
“I don’t understand the sudden reluctance,” Martin said.
Adam Moore, communications director for Department of Mental Health, said, “Generally speaking, admissions for competency restoration treatment are prioritized for individuals who are currently waiting in jail and based on the length of time since Mississippi State Hospital received a court order to admit that person for treatment.”
“In other words, individuals who are awaiting admission in a jail are much higher priority for admission than the individuals awaiting treatment who are out on bond,” Moore said.
“The charges themselves are not a factor in admissions. Infrequently, MSH receives information that a particular individual awaiting admission in a jail has a more severe psychiatric or medical situation than usual, and that is taken into consideration when prioritizing admission,” Moore said.
Moore also noted the wait is longer now than usual because the hospital can only staff 39 forensic beds. “These beds encompass pre-trial evaluation for competency, competency restoration treatment, high-risk patients under civil commitment, and individuals found not guilty by reason of insanity,” Moore said.
“Staffing has been a particular challenge during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” he said, “but yes, DMH's goal is for all programs eventually to reach their pre-pandemic levels of staffing.”
Moore said the department anticipates completing the expansion and renovation of its maximum security facilities. “If the hospital were fully staffed and the environmental issues were addressed in the currently occupied buildings, 57 forensic beds would be available,” Moore pointed out.
The renovation work is expected to last through the second quarter of calendar year 2023, although that time frame could be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
The department’s proposed renovation project for its forensic building would increase that capacity to 83 beds. “We anticipate a significant reduction in wait times and improved access to care for individuals awaiting treatment for competence restoration in Mississippi jails,” Moore said.
‘Just a sad situation how it all turned out’
In Brad Sellers’ case, his journey through the Mississippi mental illness facilities has included stops at Clearview in Moselle, Pine Grove in Hattiesburg, East Mississippi State Hospital in Meridian on two occasions, once for three months at thee State Hospital in Whitefield, once in Westhaven Group Home in Jackson, along with a stint for a probation violation at Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Dianne Sellers said.
He’s lived various times at home, where most recently, he was treated by Weems Mental Helath Center, who sent someone out to give him a shot once a month. “That was a godsend,” Dianne Sellers said.
At one time, he lived in his grandfather’s old house and boarded up all the windows in his paranoia, causing a lot of property damage. He had to leave there after an arrest for breaking into a nearby house, owned by relatives, with another person. “Brad went to jail, and the other guy didn’t.” Dianne Sellers said. “He’s always been a follower, not a leader.”
At the time of his arrest, Brad Sellers lived rent-free in an apartment complex owned by his parents. He had a roommate living with him who was responsible for making sure he took his medication, but somewhere “that went to the wayside,” his mother said.
He became increasingly paranoid, said his father, George Sellers. The day of his arrest, his parents were alerted that he had locked himself in his bedroom and was threatening suicide. They called Weems Mental Health Center for someone to meet them at the apartment and went to the room. When his father attempted to open the door, Brad Sellers slid a knife up through the door opening and sliced his father’s arm so severely that he needed medical attention.
Dianne Sellers took him to the emergency room and left him there, returning to the apartment. When she arrived, Quitman police officers were on the scene.
According to reporting at the time by WTOK, when Quitman police arrived, Sellers was still in the bedroom. Clarke County Sheriff Todd Kemp was also called to the scene and was in the apartment when Sellers attacked Officer Thereasa Haire.
“The suspect opened the door approximately six to eight inches. Officer Haire was standing in close proximity to the doorknob,” Kemp told WTOK. “She was going to grab the doorknob, and it was at that point the individual reached out with a large knife and sliced her arm to the bone. She started bleeding profusely, and it was at that point I told her, ‘Get out of here. Get out of here and get medical help.”
Kemp said Haire ran out of the apartment to a Paratech Ambulance already outside on standby. Meanwhile, Kemp and Deputy Bill Howell went after Sellers.
“Officer Howell kicked the door in and deployed his Taser. We were on top of him in a matter of seconds and were able to take him into custody without any further incident,”
Brad Sellers injured Haire so badly she required surgery in Meridian, his mother said.
Kemp said he happened to be near the complex on the day of the incident and heard Quitman Police Department calling over the radio for backup. “Just a sad situation how it all turned out,” Kemp said. “I felt like if I had gotten there first, it wouldn’t have happened like that.”
Dianne Sellers said, “There were a lot of people there, which I felt was unnecessary. I knew we were not handling it right.”
She said the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department has two crisis intervention team officers whom her son was familiar with, but neither was available when she called their cell numbers. CIT officers receive training to handle mental health crises.
Asked if he had CIT officers on the scene, Quitman Police Chief Mike McCarra said, “My officers have all kinds of training.”
George Sellers said his son knows Kemp and seemed to trust his presence there. “The sheriff had almost talked him out of that room, but when he saw someone he didn’t know behind him, that was the end of that,” he said.
Brad Seller’s attorney, Michael Grace of Quitman, did not return phone calls concerning his client’s case.
Determining competency is complicated issue
As a rule, usually a defense attorney for a suspect charged with a crime raises competency issues, said Matt Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College School of Law. But prosecutors and judges can raise competency issues as well.
Competency can come into play at three stages of the court process — whether an individual was competent at the time of the crime, whether the defendant is competent to stand trial, and if the person is competent to understand the sentence.
A person can also be found incompetent because of drug abuse, Steffey said.
Kemp said Brad Sellers had substance abuse issues for most of his adult life.
Most competency issues are raised pre-trial, which often leads to cases like those of Brad Sellers and Raffell Franklin, where a person considered a danger to him or herseelf or others can be held awaiting commitment, Steffey said.
Many times, individuals with competency issues are granted the opportunity to make bail, Steffey noted. “A person whose mental competency is in question has just as much right to bail unless and until the state makes a presentation that the person is a danger to themselves or others. Well, envision the alternative,” Steffey said.
“Aggravated assault against a police officer is a very, very, very serious matter,” Steffey noted.
Often the question is can competency be restored?
Answers vary depending on individual cases. Steffey noted.
If it can, often an individual is treated for three to six months to see. Kemp said Brad Sellers is receiving treatment at his jail. He takes risperidone and trazodone, given to him by the jail personnel.
“Often the person languishes in jail with the explicit or implicit consent of the defense lawyer,” Steffey said.
Also at issue is if the defendant could tell right from wrong at the time of the crime — in other words, was Brad Sellers mentally healthy enough to know his actions were criminal? “It’s a tough sell to a jury,” Steffey said.
Dianne Sellers said she understood wait times could be lengthy for those awaiting commitment because of the demand for beds and services. “To me, it’s sort of urgent,” she said. “They need more mental health personnel to handle the backlogs of work that needs to be done.”
She aid she does not believe she and her husband can continue caring for Brad themselves. “He needs a facility that can handle him,” she said.
-- Article credit to Julie Whitehead of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting --